Open Journal of Leadership
2013. Vol.2, No.3, 68-72
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Perceptions of Student Leadership in the University
Context—The Case of the Students’ Union in the
University of Sheffield (United Kingdom)*
María Pilar Cáceres Reche, Inmaculada Aznar Díaz, Francisco Raso Sánchez
Department of Didactic and School Organization, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
Received June 24th, 2013; revised July 29th, 2013; accepted August 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 María Pilar Cáceres Reche et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the origina l w o rk is properly cited.
The current work presents a descriptive study which focuses on analyzing the self-perceptions of student
representatives in order to determine their characteristics and leadership profile, based on their situation
and context (Sheffield University’s Student Union, UK). A non-experimental research method was ap-
plied, based on the use of questionnaires and semistructured interviews. Some of the results confirm the
conditioning exerted by the organizational culture of each institution, as well as the importance of the vo-
cational component with respect to the development and dynamization of the groups.
Keywords: Perceptions; Student Leadership; University Micropolitics
Traditionally, student representation has been a rather neg-
lected topic in our university culture, except during elections,
when there is a risk that the ideology of academic power will
change. For this reason, we need other ways to attend to and
promote this university establishment. One of these is the de-
termination of the characteristics that define their leadership
among their peers, or their perceptions about their purpose with
respect to university life (Cáceres, 2007). Other university mo-
dels, like the one in this British university, feature a macro stu-
dent syndicate, a “Students’ Union”, which manages to iden-
tify and attend to the needs of the students. They achieve this
with great efficiency and enthusiasm, reflecting an excellent
culture of student participation. Students become involved in an
organizational structure which is accessible and attracts their
interest and motivation. It is one of the oldest and most power-
ful student organizations in the United Kingdom. The present
study aims to determine the characteristics and inner workings
of this macro student syndicate through the perceptions of its
own student staff (staff officers), taking it as a model due to its
close relationship with the student population, both nationally
and internationally.
Numerous research studies have focused on traditional lea-
dership in the managerial positions of educational organizations
(Argyris, 1976; Bass, 1981; Ball, 1989; Sáenz & Lorenzo, 1993;
Bass & Avolio, 1994; Sáenz & Fernández Nares, 1994; Bolman
& Deal, 1995; Lorenzo Delgado, 2011; Barnett & McCormick,
2012; Neumerski, 2013 among others). However, very few stu-
dies focus on student leadership (Lorenzo Delgado et al., 2007;
Cáceres Reche, Lorenzo Delgado, & Sola Martínez, 2009; Vas-
siliki, 2011 among others). In this study, we focus on student
leadership in a British context, and the different roles that these
political representatives carry out within the university.
Research Problem
Student leadership takes on different nuances according to
the historical, sociocultural and economic context of each coun-
try, despite current global trends towards the homogenization of
lifestyles, opinions, university systems (European Higher Edu-
cation Area), etc.
Hence, our interest has been to extrapolate this research to an
Anglo-Saxon university context. This research began with sev-
eral pilot studies in the University of Granada, during the 2005
academic year. Our research focused on the analysis of the
perceptions that Student Union leaders have about themselves
regarding four areas: why they have been chosen by their peers
attributes, what they were chosen for expectations, how they
perform their functions thoughts on the practice and how they
value their own functions as leaders, based on their daily ex-
perience satisfactions, limitations, etc.
The main aim of this research was to study the perceptions
that the student representatives had about their own functions
regarding different areas of university leadership in a British
environment: identifying leaders (age, sex, etc.); attributes re-
lated to election, expectations and practice of leadership (tech-
niques used, etc.); and assessme nt.
In this study, we used a descriptive and mixed methodology,
based on a non-experimental survey method. We applied a
quantitative instrument, the questionnaire, as well as a qualita-
tive instrument, the semistructured interview. This allows a sig-
nificant and contextualized interpretation of the data acquired.
*Research focused on student’s leadership in British university context.
By contrasting this data, we can analyze any peculiarities that
could be specific to the Students’ Union.
With respect to the questionnaire, we used a Likert-type scale
consisting of 30 closed questions. The responses were numeri-
cal and could range from 1 to 4, where 4 indicates total agree-
ment (“totalmente de acuerdo”), 3 indicates agreement (“de
acuerdo”), 2 indicates little agreement (“poco acuerdo”), and 1
indicates total disagreement (“totalmente en desacuerdo”).
The questionnaire was designed “ad hoc”, in accordance with
the objectives and needs of the investigation. In order to deter-
mine the validity and reliability of the instrument, we first car-
ried out a procedure in which content was validated through the
assessment of expert judgment. Each questionnaire item un-
derwent an exhaustive revision process, both with respect to its
structure (semantics, syntactics), and to the content itself (defi-
nition of the construct). This revision resulted in a modified
instrument, which would then be given to the subjects in the se-
cond stage of the validation process.
In order to determine the validity of the construct and the de-
gree of internal consistency of the instrument, a pilot study was
carried out. Sixty subjects took part in this study, and they had
similar profiles to the subjects in the sample. The modified que-
stionnaire was administered, and the data obtained was sub-
jected to the factor analysis technique with the following results
in Table 1.
According to the KMO test, the measure of sampling ade-
quacy is close to unity (0,951), which guarantees that the sam-
ple used in the pilot study is satisfactory. The analysis carried
out on this sample was also feasible and conclusive, due to the
bilateral asymptotic significance of the Lilliefors results, which
were obtained through the calculation of chi-squared, used in
Bartlett’s Test of Sphericity.
With respect to reliability, the index obtained was 0.886
(Cronbach’s Alpha), which is acceptable. Similar reliability in-
dices were obtained with the Split-Half method, which studies
the correlation between the different items in the questionnaire
in Table 2.
On the other hand, the quantitative data has been comple-
mented with the results obtained through the use of semistruc-
tured interviews. These interviews aim to provide a deeper, qua-
litative, and more exhaustive exploration of the perceptions of
the leaders with respect to the following: their role as repre-
sentatives, the lack of training available, and the most frequent-
ly used methods of student “mobilization”. For this reason, the
questions used were of a more self-reflective nature, where stu-
dent leaders had to evaluate the tasks that they are required to
carry out, especially with respect to their most positive and ne-
gative experiences. In other words, we analysed the emotional
responses of the leaders to different personal, material and
functional stimuli to which they are exposed in the institu-
Table 1.
Calculation of the Kaiser-Meyer-olkin measure and bartlett’s test of
KMO and Bartlett’s Test
Measure of sampling adequacy
Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin 0.951
Chi-squared 3,971,995
Approximation gl 28
Test of sphericity
Sig. 0.000
tional centres where they are leaders. We can find in Figure 1
as following.
In this case, the population and the sample are in full agree-
ment, since there was a high degree of conformity in the results
obtained from the administration of the research instruments to
different groups of representatives (staff) that have been in
charge of the Student Syndicate in different academic years.
This results in a total of thirty “officers” in different areas of
interest for the student population and in different academic
We are dealing with a “management team” that leads student
representation at the university level, and which is character-
ized by its great youth—their ages range from 21 to 23 years
old. They are all in agreement with respect to the beginning of
their involvement in student representation: the final years of
their university career.
In fact, in order to be eligible for this type of position, it is
necessary to be completely free of ties to the academic realm.
This ensures that these leaders can dedicate themselves, com-
pletely, to guaranteeing the best possible service for the student
population. They receive a high monthly sum for carrying out
these duties. Therefore, they take a break in their academic ca-
reers, and dedicate themselves to carrying out tasks that will
provide them with valuable experience and practical skills.
Their eligibility for this type of position (e.g. “sabbatical of-
ficer”) depends on being elected by other students through a
democratic process. “Having a strong personality”, “being in-
telligent” and developing “skills such as persuasive and com-
municative skills, etc.”, are among the reasons considered to be
the most decisive in this democratic process.
To a lesser extent, but with wide acceptance, the participants
also mention physical appearance, previous experience, and the
importance of developing skills. Above all, participants do
agree on the existence of personal ethical values that are con-
sistent with the actions carried out, as well as with the devel-
opment of a strong personality.
In this sense, the relevance of fulfilling promises and of
showing an outgoing personality, as well as of having good
communication skills, are reflected in the results of this study.
Table 2.
Reliability: The split-half method.
Part 1 Value 0.814
N of elements 34 (a)
Value 0.831
Part 2
N of elements 33 (b)
Cronbachs alpha
Total N of eleme nts 67
Correlation between form s 0.593
Equal longitude 0.744
Spearman’s coefficient
brown Unequal longi tude 0.744
Guttman’s split-half meth od 0.743
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 69
Figure 1.
Main topic of the research.
[A leader] must be open; that is very important; [he/she]
must be an approachable person, as it were; a leader, at
the very least, cannot be shy (…) (Interview 1)
I believe that, on the one hand, there is the feeling that if I
must do something, I will do it even if I do not know how
to do it, but I will give it a try. (…) I think that the lea-
ders willingness to establish a dialogue is a must, but,
mainly, because otherwise the leader would not be a wor-
thy representative (Interview 9).
However, the participants show great disagreement regarding
the importance of “good grades” (75%) as a reason to elect. In
addition, “the lack of candidates” (100% of disagreement) is
not a factor when it comes to being appointed “officer”, be-
cause it is a position that is likely to have fewer problems re-
garding student participation, perhaps due to the economic
compensation received for the tasks they perform.
According to their colleague’s expectations, among the many
characteristics that leaders should have, they point out the im-
portance of “having good communicative skills”, “creating no-
vel initiatives, etc.”, “mediating in conflicts” (87.5%) and “or-
ganizing activities for students” (50%). The functions are tasks
related to the coordination of a wide range of activities and
services that try to cover the needs of the many foreign students
attending this university.
Generally, the functions that a representative should carry
out are focused on:
(…) defending the students rights, keeping them inform-
ed about possible changes in the university or in... some
subject and... defending the majority and informing the
students (…) (Interview 5)
The main repercussions of carrying out their functions are
related to “confrontations with management teams” (75%), pos-
sibly due to the fact that most of their daily activities require
interaction with those management teams; and the possibility of
“learning to negotiate” and the importance of “fulfilling prom-
ises” (62.5%).
Regarding the division between the academic realm and that
of student representation, participants consider that being an
“officer” does not mean having “more help with difficulties in
subjects”, or the possibility of “promotion within the univer-
Practice of Leadership
Environment is one the most important aspects in the educa-
tion of leaders, since they learn through practice. They acquire
knowledge with experience, but they also need specific training
A university leader’s profile is associated to people who have
the skills to understand, altruistically, the needs of the group.
Additionally, they are people who show honesty, security and
reliability, as well as being mature, decisive and knowledgeable
about their responsibilities. In most cases, the importance of
being a leader (inheritance, innate abilities) and the importance
of being trained are considered to have equal relevance. How-
ever, they also mention that it is the situation that creates the
leader; hence, a leader will be different depending on the par-
ticularities and interests, as well as the social context, of the
The results show a high level of satisfaction (87.5%) regar-
ding the execution of tasks, especially those based on the learn-
ing of different skills, such as “supporting their opinions”
(87.5%), “learning to listen” (75%), “tolerating opposing points
of view” (75%) or “learning the tricks of university micro-po-
litics” (75%). With respect to personal growth, a series of as-
pects that constitute the “must have” qualities of a leader are
mentioned. These aspects are determined by all the features and
dimensions reviewed throughout the whole study (honesty,
commitment, efficiency, empathy, communication skills, crea-
tivity, initiative, etc.).
The respondents show complete agreement in highlighting
the percentage of student representatives as sufficient. This
shows, on the one hand, that students apparently do not have
problems with involvement or participation in the organiza-
tional life of their centres or universities. On the other hand, it
also shows that students do not think it is necessary to com-
pensate, either economically or academically, other functions of
representation different to their own, within the more specific
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
ambit of centres and dep artm en t s.
Given the results obtained for each area of this study, it could
be said that the perceptions of student leadership are condi-
tioned by a series of factors present in the organizational culture,
and in the sociocultural and economic reality, of each country.
Student representation in the British Student’s Union is charac-
terized by its great organizational structure. It aims to be effec-
tive in the execution of tasks, and in the creation of positions,
so as to truly serve those who are directly affected—in this case,
the students. This shows a marked tendency to develop transac-
tional leadership. Additionally, it is understood that this type of
representative must receive a salary, which is why these “lead-
ers” are considered to be workers, employees of the university,
for dedicating one year of their life (in the final stages of their
university careers) to becoming involved with the work and
quality of life of their peers. This is different to other European
organizational models, where one of the main problems lies in
the lack of interest and participation of the students in anything
that is not strictly academic.
The studen t union i s mai nly compose d of ma le members, an d
gender stereotypes define everyone’s tasks according to their
position. In addition, opinions are divided regarding gender as a
possible influential factor in assigning positions. Nevertheless,
it is not considered decisive with respect to expectations about
the execution of tasks. Thus, in the light of the apparent “am-
biguity” shown by the results, it would be convenient, as a fu-
ture line of research, t o c o n duct a study focusing on the variable
of gender regarding student representation. The main aim of
such research would be to analyze the presence of traditional
gender stereotypes and their effect on academic and social de-
Once they have completed their studies, or while they are
coursing the last few years, student representatives show great
academic experience and knowledge, as the recipients of the in-
stitution’s educational and organizational actions.
The functions performed by student representatives are not
only based on defending and representing students, but also on
offering a number of activities and recreational tasks that allow
for the students’ implication and, especially, on attending to the
needs of foreign students. Therefore, student representatives are
detached from the academic sphere in order to avoid a possible
“monopoly of power”; thus, “sabbatical officers” can only hold
that position for a year, and the temporary nature of it is mani-
fest in the answers given—neither academic promotions, nor
advantages in academic subjects are expected.
The search for effectiveness is attributed to the presence of a
strong personality, which is necessary to face the different roles
assigned, and is reinforced with experience and daily practi ce.
Student representatives consider that the dimensions of their
personality which determine their election are mainly related to
“being” (values, attitudes) and “doing” (development of skills,
“know-how”, etc.), and not necessarily to “knowing” (knowl-
edge). They only highlight internal factors as specific reasons
for their election, such as having the ability to persuade; devel-
oping a strong personality; having the ability to communicate,
debate and negotiate; being open, honest and outgoing; show-
ing confidence; being creative; facing problems; and having the
ability to remain calm.
They perceive themselves as representatives who must de-
fend, inform, solve problems, mediate in conflicts and be effi-
cient. The position is linked to the cultural sphere (“being a
timetable of activities”) rather than the academic one (defen-
ding the needs and interests of the group), in order to attend to
the needs and interests (entertainment, training, information and
orientation) of the many foreign students, through the many ser-
vices offered by this macro students’ union. Thus, taking into
account that most of the difficulties faced by student represen-
tatives arise due to confrontations with institutional managers,
with whom they might disagree, the “sociocultural” approach to
leadership leads us to ask ourselves certain questions. If it is a
students’ union which for all practical purposes is established
as “a cornerstone of the academic system”, ensuring the stu-
dents’ needs and, at the same time, the achievement of its own
goals to what extent can mediation be effective when it might
be geared to favour the interests of those in power? How can it
defend students’ affairs against the institutional university net-
works? Thus, a second line of research which would be of great
interest could be launched, with this study as a starting point, in
order to know the perceptions of the students being represented.
This second study would provide us with a wider point of view,
and an understanding of student leadership in the British aca-
demic context, from the point of view of the different agents,
active as well as passive, involved in the organizational life of
the centre.
The learning of skills, such as the ability to negotiate and to
manage the intricacies of the academic culture, has been estab-
lished as a positive consequence related to student leadership.
In addition, student leadership is conceived as a function that
resides within the group through a shared project.
It is thought that in order to become a leader, it is essential to
possess a series of innate skills and to develop them in a stimu-
lating learning environment, as well as through exposure to dif-
ferent experiences that will define each leader’s profile (“the
context creates leaders”). Thus, leadership development implies
having a clear goal, showing satisfaction when goals are met (to
motivate) and conveying confidence with respect to the achie-
vement of goals.
The representatives emphasize, by mutual agreement, the
leaders’ need to receive specific training through compulsory
training courses in which they can receive, above all, practical
advice, orientation, and suggestions, as well as the opportunity
to learn about other people’s experiences (strategic knowledge).
However, it is one of the European universities that show a
greater awareness regarding the training it offers to its student
representatives. Thus, it could serve as a model for most Higher
Education institutions, in which, as mentioned at the beginning
of this study, the matter of student representation has been a
rather neglected issue. An additional line of research, which
would be of great interest with respect to the topic at hand,
would be the in-depth study of the formal features and the stru-
ctural subject-matter of the above-mentioned training courses,
which have long been around. Additionally, this line of re-
search should take into account a series of factors, such as eco-
nomic compensation to encourage, as in this country, student
participation in representational work. Nevertheless, this issue
should be analyzed in greater depth, given that British student
leaders themselves disagree on the link between performing the
tasks that come with the position and receiving academic or
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 71
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
economic “rewards”. Paradoxically, despite playing their role
as “workers”, they disagree with the external consequences. The
“must have” qualities are thought to be related to an intrinsic
motivation (achieving goals, gaining the group’s trust, receiv-
ing their support, etc.); in other words, they consider it more
important to promote personal growth from the performance of
functions oriented towards altruism and social recognition.
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